“Never a great swinger of the ball, he compensates with a smooth, leggy run-up, fast arm action and accuracy. Like Joel Garner, he possesses a lethal yorker and a nasty bouncer, but his career-best eight for 45 against hapless England at Bridgetown in 1990 owed everything to the virtues of speed and straightness.” – Tribute paid to Curtly Ambrose by Wisden.
The West Indies have a rich history of regularly producing a big crop of quality and successful fast bowlers. While the other countries have often struggled to have a potent fast bowling strike force, the West Indies instead invariably had almost double the pace strength.
And then, suddenly, the era of nasty and quick West Indian fast bowlers seemed to come to an end, and the team appeared to lose their way after dominating world cricket for ages. But it wasn’t long before a devastating fast bowler in form of the 6’7” Curtly Ambrose was discovered, who formed a deadly partnership with Courtney Walsh to continue the tradition of rich fast bowling in the team.
Born on September 21, 1963 at Swetes Village in Antigua, Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose didn’t really like cricket as a boy, and preferred to play basketball and football. He used to feel that a cricket match’s duration was too long and the sport took up a lot of energy, and hence tried to avoid the game.
He began by playing tennis ball cricket for leisure at the Antigua beach with his friends, and was later pressed by peers to play for his school and village teams. Looking at his performances, people believed he had the potential to play the proper version of cricket where he could exploit his tall height.
His first game was for Swetes in the national league in 1984, at the age of 21, which according to many would be considered a late start. Ambrose gave it his best shot, and his impressive performances meant that he was fast tracked to the Antigua and Barbuda team in 1985. In 1986, he was picked for the Leeward Islands side, where he found a place in the team alongside West Indian stalwarts like Viv Richards, Richie Richardson and Eldine Baptiste.
Ambrose missed most of the 1987 season for Leewards as the team’s fast bowling department included West Indies players like Baptiste, Winston Benjamin, Anthony Merrick and George Ferris. He finally got his chance in 1988, when Baptiste and Benjamin were away on national duty, and Ambrose made the most of the opening he got.
In 1988, Ambrose found a place in the West Indies team to play a visiting Pakistan side, to replace Joel Garner who had just retired. He made his debut in the Test at Georgetown, which turned out to be the first test in a decade which West Indies lost at home. It wasn’t a great start to Ambrose’s career, in a game where he managed to grab just 2 wickets. But he didn’t lost heart and later described his experience.
“It was a great experience playing for the best team in the world alongside great men like Captain Viv Richards, Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge Malcolm Marshall and Courtney Walsh. Maco was the top bowler in the world at that time and Courtney Walsh was making a name for himself so I didn’t want to be the weak link, therefore I had to learn very fast. I was known as the “other guy” amongst those world-beating bowlers and it forced me to improve quickly. I learned a lot from Maco and Walsh who were really helpful in getting me to adjust to International cricket.”
3 Sep 2000: The West Indies bowling partnership Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose walk off together for the last time in a Test Match
Ambrose showed glimpses of his talent in the next series, which was against England. Along with Marshall, Ambrose took 57 out of the 93 English wickets in the series, as he finished with an impressive average, strike rate and economy.
The highlight of Ambrose’s career has been the many devastating spells that he has bowled. In the Bridgetown Test against South Africa in 1992, the visitors required 201 to win the match, and began the final day at 122-2 with Kepler Wessels and Peter Kirsten at the crease. Ambrose and Walsh displayed some inspired bowling to dismiss the Proteas for just 148, as Ambrose finished with excellent figures of 6-34 off 24 overs.
The Perth Test in 1993 saw the Aussie team bearing the brunt of Ambrose’s bowling where he crushed the batting line-up in a spell of just 32 balls to finish with incredible figures of 7 wickets for only 1 run. Six out of the seven wickets were caught by the wicketkeeper or in the slips. The balls would skid through the wicket and hurry on to the batsmen, who had no time to react.
If these were not enough, there was another bowling display in Trinidad against England in 1994, which left the English team spellbound. Chasing 194 to win the Test, the English team was bowled out for a meagre 46 with Ambrose returning with a rich return of 6-24. It was only the second time in the history of the Test cricket that only two bowlers were used to dismiss a batting side.
The Wisden Almanack described Ambrose’s performance saying “he came ‘rampaging in as if on springs,’ 6 for 24 as England were routed for 46 in Trinidad in 1994, stumps flying everywhere as a frenzied, cacophonous crowd bayed for English blood.”
Ambrose’s career wasn’t injury-free as he suffered from back strains which started limiting his participation and also affected his bowling. Before the English tour of the West Indies in 1998, the media started reporting of his rumoured retirement. However, Ambrose went on to play for two more years, before finally calling it a day in 2000, and was given a guard of honour from the English team when he walked out to bat in his final innings at The Oval.
When asked, whom he thought was the toughest batsman he bowled to, his terse response was “I didn’t like them anyway. A few of them were worthy but I wouldn’t take their names now and make them feel happy. I hated conceding runs. I had no sympathy for the batsman. I never wanted to hurt any batsman, but I never gave it easy. Even if I hurt a batsman once, I wouldn’t give it easy the next time.”
Ambrose is a true giant of the game of cricket, and he has enthralled the fans with many brilliant bowling displays. His colourful personality has continued to entertain people even after retirement and he is now a musician and plays guitar for the band ‘Big Bad Dread and the Baldhead’, which also features Richie Richardson. When asked about cricket, he replies that he hardly watches the game now, though he tries to keep track of the progress of the West Indian side.
A wonderful return of 405 wickets from 98 tests at an average of 20.99 and an economy of 2.30 bears testimony to a brilliant career. It is probably unfair that he is not considered in the same league as Lillie, Hall and Marshall, because he was equally as talented and motivated as the other legendary bowlers. With better support from the other West Indian fast bowlers, Ambrose could have scaled even further heights in his glorious career.